9/11: Stephen Evans returns to Ground Zero

Construction work near Ground Zero
Image caption Office workers look out as construction continues at the World Trade Center site

BBC correspondent Stephen Evans was sitting in New York's World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001 awaiting a meeting when two hijacked planes crashed into its twin towers. Ten years on, the Bridgend-born journalist returned to the scene and reflects on the events and repercussions of that day.

Ground Zero seems like another world from the place I walked into on the morning of September 11, 2001. Of course it does.

Apart from anything else, it's now called Ground Zero, not a name I liked but one which stuck. No doubt, it was dubbed that by someone in some newsroom seeking a shorthand for the massiveness of the event.

But the destruction was not on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not remotely near it. Nor was the magnitude of the event. So I always thought that the use of the term for the place the atom bombs hit in 1945 was a loose usage. Have no doubt, the attacks of September 11 were terrible and outrageous but they were not atomic warfare.

All the same, we are left with the name. Ground Zero it is. To go there today, is to be thrown into all sorts of reflections. It has become a crowded place of pilgrimage or of touristic gawping depending on your darkness of view.

One person I know who was also there on the day, became irritated when we met on Greenwich Street which runs into the site. "Look at them there, drinking their cappuccinos", he said, pointing to the cafés on the side-walk, "like nothing ever happened here." That seemed to me to be unfair.

'Sky was a pristine blue'

On the morning of September 11, 10 years ago, the World Trade Center was a comparatively peaceful place. The bustle of Manhattan was elsewhere, most usually up-town in Times Square.

Image caption Stephen Evans says he still feels outraged and cannot make sense of the 9/11 terrorist attacks

On the plazas between the towers, there were people walking purposefully to work from the subway station, but not that many people - not crowds but individuals, invariably office workers because the janitors and security guards who also died that day had gotten in earlier. They were and are the people you see on the trains at five in the morning.

The weather, too, is different this week. On that day 10 years ago, it was crisp with a hint of Autumn. The sky was a pristine blue. This week, there's been rain. It's been humid and oppressive and, I think, depressive.

That perfect azure sky gave the attacks when they happened an unreal quality. Many people who were there say so. It was like a Hollywood film-set is the common view which I share. It was simply unreal and unimaginable.

Literally unimaginable until just before - and even after - nine o'clock on that day. I was on the ground floor of the South Tower when the first plane hit the North Tower with a sound I can only liken to that of a huge container of concrete falling very near from a great height.

I spent the next few hours moving from phone to phone to report on the events for BBC television and radio. The first phone I used was in a newsagent's shop across the road from the South Tower, but the newsagent insisted on moving when the second plane hit. His shop is no more. I've tried to see where it was but it was simply obliterated.

From there, I moved to the Embassy Suites and hired a room in the hotel to use the phone. I can remember looking out onto Vesey Street which ran up towards the North Tower and seeing a long line of fire trucks and thinking that the authorities had arrived so everything was going to be OK.

'Trying to make sense of it'

When the South Tower collapsed, the phones in the hotel went dead and we were evacuated. And then when the South Tower collapsed, I decided to get out of the area, cadging a lift in a stranger's car.

I sat in the back alongside a Chinese-American woman who was also a stranger. We both listened together to the news coming out of the radio behind us in Spanish and English, trying to make sense of it.

She was going into labour, trying to get to a hospital and her thoughts flitted between the big event we were leaving and the big event in her own body. When we parted, and I got out, she gave me a piece of paper with her husband's phone number on it and I am ashamed to say that I lost that piece in the confusion and melee before I could call to say his wife was fine.

I couldn't make sense of the attacks. I still can't really. I don't think I was damaged by them. Those who were were the ones who lost loved ones in terrible circumstances, particularly those who chose to jump to their deaths because of the inferno behind them.

Image caption Construction work continues at the site of the World Trade Center 10 years after it was destroyed

But I was and am outraged by the attacks. I feel as though they were a personal attack and a personal attempt to force me and those in democratic societies to behave according to some sort of medieval set of beliefs.

In that, the attacks failed. This week, I met David Handschuh who was also there on the day. He is a big, generous person who has been damaged by the attacks inside his own head - he was a photographer who saw, and perhaps worse, heard people landing (it is not the right word) very near him.

He was also trapped when a building collapsed and was then pulled to safety by fire-fighters (with whom he now often spends the anniversary of September 11, liberally, I imagine, buying them drinks).

He told me this week: "On the morning of September 12, 2001, Lower Manhattan was a ghost town and I think there were questions about whether anyone would be able or want to return here to live or work.

'Bustling again'

"Today, clearly this is the hot area of New York City. The New York Daily news has moved its office to Lower Manhattan. Conde Nast has signed a lease to be in the World Trade Center.

"There are people out on the street enjoying a beautiful day. People are paying astronomical fees to buy condos. The economy might be hurting but Lower Manhattan is bustling again.

"The people who attacked this country have changed the world but they did not win. We have to endure searches at the airport. We have to endure bomb scares when people accidentally leave knapsacks somewhere.

"But I think people around the world are going on with their lives, so no, they didn't win".

Stephen Evans talks to Sian Pari Huws in Ten Years On: The Welsh Journalist at 9/11 on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday 11 September 2011 at 13:30 BST

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